A Conservative MP has called on fellow Tories to change their attitude towards people who take the knee as an anti-racism protest.
“This may be a decisive moment for our party,” the former minister wrote in a message to MPs on the Conservatives Against Racism, For Equality group.
“Much as we can’t be associated with calls to defund the police, we urgently need to challenge our own attitude to people taking a knee.
“I fear we are in danger of misrepresenting our own heart for those who suffer injustice.”
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were all subjected to racist abuse after missing spot kicks in Sunday’s penalty shootout defeat against Italy at Wembley.
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have both condemned the abuse, with the prime minister discussing the issue of online abuse with internet companies at Downing Street on Tuesday.
But the PM and home secretary have been accused by critics of hypocrisy given some of their previous comments on the issue of taking the knee.
The protest began in the US in 2016 and became a pre-match feature of football games in the UK last year amid the worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the Minnesota.
Some have expressed opposition to players taking the knee, arguing it shows support for the political aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, but England manager Gareth Southgate has insisted the squad taking the knee was not a political gesture.
Ms Patel described the move as “gesture politics” last month and said England fans had a “choice” over whether or not to boo players as they made their protest.
Ahead of the tournament, the prime minister told England fans not to boo footballers taking the knee. But it came after he had previously failed to criticise supporters who jeered the protest against racial injustice.
One member of the England squad, defender Tyrone Mings, directly challenged Ms Patel over her “gesture politics” remark on Monday, saying: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”
Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former defence minister, said of Mings’ tweet: “The painful truth is that this guy is completely right.
“Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into. Do I fight it or stay silent? Modern Conservatism was always so much more to me. We must not lose our way.”
Speaking to Sky News earlier, Labour’s Dawn Butler accused the government of “deliberately” going on “a path of stoking hatred and division” within society.
The Brent Central MP said: “This government has been the most divisive government I have ever seen in my lifetime, they have stoked a culture war deliberately, they have said they are having this war on woke.
“Woke is about being considerate to others, that’s what woke means and this government has deliberately gone on a path of stoking hatred and division in our society.”
She noted that she is optimistic for the future after seeing “more positive anti-racists in society than there are racists” but that is “not led by this government”, criticising ministers as “part of the problem”.
Ms Butler also accused the home secretary of using racist language to stoke division.
She said: “When we call out the burning injustices what does the government do? Produces a race report that says racism doesn’t exist.
“It is not just what you say, it’s what you do and it’s how you treat people.
“Now the home secretary has some draconian measures to draconian laws and the way she talks about migrants and immigrants is racist. It’s racist language that’s used to stoke division, so it’s not just for this moment. We need to see real action.”
The PM’s spokesman said Mr Johnson had repeated his condemnation of the racist abuse aimed at England players during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
“He said the abuse was utterly disgraceful and had emerged from the dark spaces of the internet,” the spokesman said.
“He said he would use today’s meeting with social media firms to reiterate the urgent need for action, ahead of tougher laws coming into force through the online harms bill.
“He added there is no question this kind of abuse is extremely upsetting, unfair and needs to be stamped out.”
The spokesman also defended Ms Patel, saying: “The home secretary has been clear, there is no place for racism in our country and that’s why she is backing the police to hold those responsible accountable.
“As I set out yesterday, the prime minister called for the nation to get behind and support the players, to cheer and not boo, before England had played a game in the tournament.
“The home secretary is working every day to clamp down on hate crime, racism and violence.
“There’s no place for racism in this country and she’s backing the police to hold those responsible to account.”